Hollyhocks in Heaven
Cathy Keeton Azar
You can’t run from your childhood. It’s footprints follow you throughout your life. Some of those footprints leave pretty deep impressions. There are also a few people who leave their imprint on you. For me, Mrs. Brown was one of those few people who left a life long impression.
Our neighborhood was in a small city that allowed its residents to walk to everything. We walked to school, we walked to the grocery store and any place that we needed to go. Parents allowed their children to walk to school alone as well as play outside alone. No supervision was needed. On quiet, hot summer days when school was out, we were pushed out the door in the early am hours.
“You all go on outside and play today”, my mother would say every summer morning at around 8:00. The routine never changed during our summer break.
We got up, dressed, ate breakfast and spent the day outside playing. We only went inside for lunch and dinner. All the neighborhood children would gather to explore the neighborhood and a nearby creek.
My sisters and I knew that we were lucky that we lived by a creek. This was the kind of creek that ran through a neighborhood where lots of children lived. We didn’t have a swimming pool, we had a creek. We would romp in the cool, running water usually at mid-day. Of course, we wore our shorts and flip-flops so we would be prepared to get in the water. We daily schedule was pretty consistent. We scoured the neighborhood to find each other and then we would plot what we would do that day. We knew that regardless of our schedule, we would spend time in the creek and go home for lunch.
We passed the same houses each day as we looked for each other. Most of the houses were wood framed houses with big front porches. Some were white, while others were painted different colors. Some had very manicured lawns, while others were carefree with slightly overgrown lawns. There was one house that stood out among the others. It was Mrs. Brown’s house. Her house was white with green shutters. But there was a difference in her house than ours. The front yard was a garden of flowers. Not a few flowers but a yard filled with so many flowers you couldn’t see any grass. There was only a narrow concrete path leading to the front door. It was years and years worth of flowers. Mrs. Brown must have been planting flowers since she moved in the house. She was an old lady, maybe around seventy-five years old. I don’t remember ever seeing her husband. He must have passed away long ago. I do remember seeing her out in the yard every morning, way before we all gathered to play. I believe she was out there as soon as the morning sun came out and it wasn’t hot yet. She was tall and thin and her dress hung loosely on her narrow frame. On her head was a big floppy straw hat and she wore gardening gloves. Her gray hair barely peeked out from the straw hat.
She would wave to me every morning as I passed her house. Sometimes, she would stop me to talk for a minute or two.
“You look awfully hot, why don’t you come in for a minute and have a cold drink?” she would offer. My mother had told me that it was all right to visit with her, she was probably lonely. So I would accept her offer to come into her house.
The house was cool inside even without air-conditioning. Beautiful things adorned the rooms. Her living room wasn’t like ours. It looked like a place that you don’t sit down in. Large, heavy furniture with carved dark wood legs sat in the large room. Pretty lace doilies protected the dark wood tables that had crystal vases sitting on them. Photos of family were lined up on the fireplace mantle. Small children’s happy faces and dark stern faces of adults stared from the mantle. Mrs. Brown led me from the front door to the kitchen. We passed the living room and dining room. I couldn’t help but notice that there were flowers everywhere. The crystal vases held all kinds of bouquets.
“You have such beautiful flowers,” I would say in awe each time I visited.
“Well, it takes a lot of work but it's my passion,” she would tell me.
We would sit down at her kitchen table while she poured us either iced tea or lemonade. The drink was served in heavy crystal glasses, not like the plastic tumblers my mother used. I was careful to hold the glass tightly so that I wouldn’t break it as we made small talk.
“There are so many varieties of flowers, you know,” Mrs. Brown would tell me.
“There are flowers that start from bulbs, like my tulips and iris,” she would explain.
Before long, I was learning a lot about flowers and their types. It was like she became a teacher of flowers. She talked slowly and meticulously in her explanations. I began to learn all different varieties of flowers. Mrs. Brown had tulips, iris, daffodils, hydrangea, daisies, geraniums, pansies, lavender, roses and on and on.
“There are also what are called heirloom flowers. These are flowers that have been around for a long time. They go way back in time. I am lucky enough that I have raised some in my yard. They are rather finicky and need lots of patience,” she explained.
“Which of your flowers are the heirloom?” I eagerly asked.
“Lets go outside and I’ll show you,” she said as she led me through the back door to her backyard. We stepped outside to a backyard filled with more flowers than the front yard if that was possible. She pointed to the rear of the yard.
“The heirlooms are planted on the back row of the yard along the fence. We walked to the white picket fence that surrounded her backyard.
“This is the Foxglove. See the small narrow tube like flowers,” she said as she showed me the purple flowered plant. I touched its small purple tube flower to feel its smooth consistency. Its tall stems held dozens of the small, glove-like flowers.
“My favorite is the Hollyhock. It has been around a long time. My mother grew them,” she said as she touched the hollyhock. It was a tall flower with bright pink and white flowers. The green stem was not smooth, almost tough as though to protect the beautiful flowers. They almost looked tropical with pink rimming the white flowers. It didn’t have a smell but it was tall and majestic, it looked strong in the hot afternoon sun and had many blooms on its stems.
“I will cut you a couple stems of hollyhock to take to your mother,” she said as she took flower shears from her apron. She began to cut four stems of the hollyhock.
“I hope your mother will enjoy these. If she likes them, I will give her a few seeds to start a few. But you will have to remind her that it is a finicky plant that needs her care."
I carried those hollyhock proudly home to my mother. I remember the look on my mother’s face. “How beautiful, they are wonderful,” she said as she took them from my hands. I knew right away that she loved the flowers.
“My mother grew these in her backyard in Alabama,” she said with tears in her eyes. “These are heirloom flowers, you don’t see them much anymore. Oh, they bring back memories of my childhood.”
I was very happy that day because I had made my mother happy in thinking about her childhood and her mother. I was glad that Mrs. Brown had chosen the hollyhock to give my mother that special day.
“You tell Mrs. Brown how much I love them,” my mother said as she put them in water. I would be sure to tell Mrs. Brown how much my mother enjoyed them and I did tell her the next day when I saw her.
The summer went by quickly. But it turned out to be the worst summer of my life. In late August just before school was to return, my mother became ill. It was sudden and unexpected. She was here today and gone tomorrow. To this day, I still don’t understand it. There was no warning, no explanation. One afternoon, she felt bad and went to her bedroom to lie down. That was something she never did during the day. She had too many things to do that included taking care of three young girls.
I went to her side that afternoon to check on her as she lay in her bed with the wind of a small fan blowing on her.
“Mom, are you all right? What’s wrong?” I asked her in worry.
“I don’t feel right today. I feel so bad,” was her only answer to me.
By the time my father came from work, she was no better. He had worked hard all day at the steel mill and was shocked to find her home in bed. There was no food prepared as usual for the last fifteen years. I don’t know what happened that night.
I only knew that he stayed in the room the entire night and never came out. Not even to check on us. So I knew it was bad and I was afraid. My sisters and I barely slept that night. Our small minds were full of fear.
That fear became real when we stood at the funeral home several days later. As small children, we didn’t understand the reality of life and its sometimes unbearable burdens. That day of the funeral would be the first of life’s burdens placed upon our small shoulders.
The funeral home looked like a florist shop. There were huge bouquets of flowers everywhere. Now I knew even as a child, that flowers cost money. The people who were neighbors and family friends couldn’t afford all these flowers. There were dozens and dozens of pink roses in tall, heavy urns. Daisies and carnations were in every corner of the room. Tall, pink, white, purple, yellow, orange gladiolus were all over. But all those different arrangements weren’t what caught my eye. My eyes went straight to my mother’s casket.
On top of her casket, in the center was a huge display of hollyhocks. The hollyhocks were the brightest pink you would ever see. Among all the flowers in the room, they stood out. They were the simplest of all but yet the most grand. They were the flowers that my mother loved the most. They were for her and made a wonderful tribute to her.
Mrs. Brown quietly walked over to me and held me. “I know that the hollyhock was your mother’s favorite flower, so I placed them next to her. She will take the hollyhocks to heaven. They may not have hollyhocks there and she will want them." Mrs. Brown had added some beauty to this horrible day and it made the best memorial of all.
“Hollyhocks in Heaven,” I repeated feeling better thinking about it and how my mother would have loved it.
Cathy Keeton Azar is a former teacher who loves to write southern fiction. She was born in Alabama, raised in the Midwest, and returned to live in North Carolina. Her experiences include teaching, owning a restaurant, owning a movie supply business and a real estate business.